Conscious Shopping Brought to You by Bangladesh’s Garment Factory Fire

Reflections on a tragedy that killed 117 workers and injured 200 more.

Workers shout slogans as they protest against the death of their colleagues after a devastating garment factory fire, which killed more than 100 people in Savar. (Photo: Andrew Biraj/Reuters)

Amy DuFault is a writer and editor whose work has been published in EcoSalon, Huffington Post, Ecouterre, Organic Spa, Coastal Living, Yahoo!,

While online sales this past Black Friday jumped 26 percent to $1.04 billion and the National Retail Federation announced shoppers set a Black Friday record with 247 million shoppers visiting stores and websites over the four-day weekend, many consumers are still oblivious to what their bargain purchases drive.

“More than 90 percent of the people who buy things don't know and don't care. Otherwise it would not have gone this far in the first place. What else explains such animalistic behavior if not greed?”

Take, for example, the fatal garment factory fire that killed over 100 people this weekend outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. A supplier for Walmart's Faded Glory line as well as C&A, Carrefour and KIK, Tazreen Fashions is unfortunately one of many factories supplying the world with fast fashion clothing at family-friendly prices this holiday season.

"These brands have known for years that many of the factories they choose to work with are death traps. Their failure to take action amounts to criminal negligence," says Ineke Zeldenrust from the Clean Clothes Campaign.

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Theresa Haas, Director of Communications at the Worker Rights Consortium, says many apparel brands have developed sophisticated corporate social responsibility programs that give the appearance they take labor rights seriously, while having almost no positive impact on said workers.

"As we saw in the recent Ali Enterprises fire in Pakistan, in which nearly 300 workers were killed, and the fire at Tazreen Fashions, both of which occurred at factories that were supposedly subject to the labor rights auditing programs of major apparel brands and retailers, such voluntary initiatives do not effectively prevent these deadly tragedies. Although companies like Gap, Walmart, H&M, and others pay lip service to the labor codes of conduct they claim to uphold, they are simultaneously pressing their suppliers to keep costs as low as possible, preventing factories from being able to afford necessary safety improvements," says Haas.

The New York Times reports that Bangladesh exports about $18 billion worth of garments a year: “Employees in the country’s factories are among the world’s lowest-paid, with entry-level workers making the government-mandated minimum wage of about $37 a month or slightly above.”

In many towns held hostage by big companies that employ most if not all of the townspeople, the residents have no room to complain. Take, for example, union organizer Aminul Islam, who campaigned for better working conditions and higher wages, and was found tortured and killed outside Dhaka just this year.

And as we hear more of these stories on a consistent basis (see the September 2012 Pakistani factory fire for another tragic example), one is left to wonder where the so-called conscious consumers are.

Scare tactics and shame aren’t likely to make a dent in the collective shopping experience, so how can the message of world interconnectedness become more than a disconnected "like" on a Facebook cause page?

“I don’t think the message needs to be super jarring,” says Bob Bland, founder of Brooklyn-based Manufacture NY.  “People have to stop looking at these factories like a working microcosm with lots of faceless people making things…we’re not thinking about families and personal injury or even taking it to the individual level, like would you let your daughter or your mother work like this? How can we so easily lay down a dollar without thinking about all of it,” adds Bland.

Lisa Hendrickson, a business strategist from Albuquerque, New Mexico, agrees.

“I think this reflects a greater trend that we as a culture don't understand things like ‘delayed gratification’ and a commitment to quality, community and accountability. I think we're so far removed from the process of creating quality items that it’s hard for people to understand who, where, and to what effect their purchasing behaviors have on them, their community and the world around them,” says Hendrickson of our I-just-want-it-now shopping mentality.

Anthony Lilore, cofounder of RESTORE clothing and a member of the Manhattan Fashion District’s Save the Garment Center, says most consumers don't care at all about fashion and consciousness, and most investors care only about ROI based on the consumers who buy their product.

“More than 90 percent of the people who buy things don't know and don't care. Otherwise it would not have gone this far in the first place. What else explains such animalistic behavior if not greed?” says Lilore.

Will a garment factory fire that killed 117 workers and injured 200 more make you think twice about purchasing that stocking-stuffer fleece or that sock three-pack? Tell us in the COMMENTS below.

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